The Big Society and Localism – Rhetoric or Reality?

The Localism Bill

The big society and localism are broad themes overarching the Coalition Government’s programme. Whilst the terms are open to interpretation, key elements include encouraging volunteering, community participation and shifting decision making from national and regional levels to local and neighbourhood levels. The Localism Bill is designed to help deliver this agenda, especially in its neighbourhood planning proposals. But is it really about empowering local communities and is it deliverable in practice, especially against the context of public sector spending cuts?

There has been quite a lot of coverage in the media recently over whether the impact of public spending cuts on the voluntary and community sector is undermining the Big Society. Liverpool Council recently withdrew from the Government’s Big Society initiative on the basis that the community and voluntary sector in their area had been decimated by the funding cuts.

Of course the big society has been around for a long time, though there has been concern by some organisations that the Government has been slow to recognise the vast spectrum of existing activities around the country. Third sector and community organisations have supported volunteering, helped people to participate in democratic processes, supported social enterprise and delivered publically funded community projects. The array of such organisations includes local residents’ groups, development trusts, civic societies, architecture centres, social enterprises, building trusts, housing trusts and the Planning Aid services. But it is many of these organisations that have had the funding rug pulled from under them as a result of local authority budget cuts, the abolition of regional development agencies (and their funding programmes) and the recent review of quangos.

The Government has been keen to point to alternative funding sources like the Neighbourhood Planning Fund and the Big Lottery Transition Fund. However, the former is tiny (£3 million) and the latter is specifically aimed at organisations undertaking local authority-type front-line services. There is the Regional Growth Fund, but this is aimed specifically at private sector job creation so is of little consequence to many charitable and community organisations, even when they are involved in training and skills development for local communities. For many charitable and community organisations, these new funds do not offer a solution.

The Localism Bill must be considered against this context of diminishing resources. There is certainly radical thinking behind the Bill, especially the emphasis placed on neighbourhood planning. Regional planning policies (regional spatial strategies, which have been the responsibility of unelected regional bodies) are to be abolished. There will be a National Planning Policy Framework, setting out the (much simplified) national policy framework; local authorities will have a ‘duty to co-operate’ to address cross boundary issues and remain the statutory planning authorities; however, there is no doubt that the key change is the move to  neighbourhood plans, which are to be community-led. In rural areas by parish or town councils and in urban areas by new, neighbourhood forums, which are to be created by a minimum of three people, only two of whom must live in the area. Neighbourhood planning is an attractive proposition, though some organisations have highlighted the need for wider strategic thinking, for example over transport infrastructure provision. The Government has introduced Local Economic Partnerships, which are intended to provide this wider strategic role as far as economic development is concerned; however, It is not envisaged they will have statutory powers.

The proposed neighbourhood plans are to be subject to a public vote, requiring at least 51% of people in the specified area to vote in favour. A similar voting arrangement is proposed for local development orders, which would relax the planning regime in the specified locality. The community right to build would introduce a similar arrangement for actual development proposals, which could bypass the planning system if they gained a 51% vote.

These voting arrangements demonstrate a quite different interpretation of localism than that of the previous government. The Labour Government’s version of localism was based around the concept of front-loading (undertaking community engagement before producing policy and strategy) and targeting of hard-to-engage groups. In practice, many local authorities misunderstood the concept of front-loading, often due to lack of expertise in community engagement.

The previous government’s approach is philosophically distinct from the new neighbourhood planning, which may be led by a relatively small group of people and then subjected to a public vote. This raises a fundamental question over whether such initiatives are really about empowering local people, or could actually empower the well-off and the articulate at the expense of the most vulnerable groups. For the 51% or more voting in favour, they clearly ‘buy into’ whatever is proposed. But for those in the losing minority whose interests may be harmed, the removal of normal scrutiny by the planning process, with its opportunities for them to make representations, could remove the means of protecting their homes, businesses or local environments. Thus, the emphasis is on majority interests rather than mediating between all interests, including those of minorities and individuals.

In undertaking neighbourhood planning, local communities will need access to professional support, capacity building (training and education) and consultation skills, if they are to engage a wide range interests in the community and not just the most outspoken. Empowering local people means providing proper resources. Where local referenda take place, local communities need full access to the range of support, information and advice normally available to local planning authorities (highways, health, design, heritage, etc.). Without proper resources, localism is an aspiration only. Local people would be expected to take on complex planning activities, but without the support available to the public authorities that currently have this role.

Indeed, without proper resources, there is a heightened risk that unrepresentative and articulate people could pursue their own self-interests through neighbourhood plans, local development orders and the community right to build. Safeguards are required to make sure that all local people can have their say and that vulnerable people are not disempowered. There is perhaps a particular risk in low-economic-demand areas of unscrupulous developers offering to fund neighbourhood planning on the back of support for “bad neighbour” developments. This could be very divisive, splitting local communities.

It remains to be seen whether communities will be interested in pursuing these options. There are examples where communities have been actively involved in policy planning at local and even regional level, though this has relied on pro-active and enlightened programmes of community engagement, including extensive capacity building. Without such programmes, there has been little interest in planning policy by local communities. However, the more focused nature of neighbourhood plans may be attractive to some local groups, because it will be relatively easy to relate to their own property and interests. It is perhaps less likely that local communities will pursue local development orders. There is evidence to suggest that people are far more bothered by the activities of their neighbours than by the need to apply for planning permission to do works to their own properties.

The Government has suggested that the new community infrastructure levy (CIL) could contribute to delivering neighbourhood plan proposals. This is essentially a tax on development proposals to support local infrastructure. This may help in areas of high demand, but in underperforming areas where development is marginal (more so with 20% VAT), little money could be raised through CIL. This clearly needs to be addressed. Localism should not be something for more prosperous areas only.

There are organisations that could help to support local communities in neighbourhood planning. Paradoxically, they are not being supported by the Government. For example, in North Staffordshire, two organisations that have been involved in providing professional support, community engagement and capacity building are Planning Aid and Urban Vision North Staffordshire. Planning Aid recently had all of its national core funding cut by the Department of Communities and Local Government. Urban Vision North Staffordshire, like many architecture centres, relied on CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), regional development agencies, English Heritage and local authorities for a substantial part of its funding. Such funding has hugely diminished or disappeared altogether for the next financial year, causing Urban Vision and most other architecture centres in the country to contract or close altogether.

Both organisations are likely to continue in some form, perhaps with funding from the Neighbourhood Planning Fund; however, they will have much reduced capacity, as indeed will the local authorities in North Staffordshire. At the same time, the Localism Bill will place huge new demands on all of these organisations. In effect, new legislation is coinciding with the contraction of the infrastructure necessary for its delivery.

Similar issues arise with the sections of the Bill concerned with asset transfer. This is the Government’s aspiration that buildings and other assets be transferred from local authorities to community groups. This is to be welcomed in principle; there are numerous examples where building preservation trusts, development trusts and other local trusts have used historic buildings, such as Victorian educational buildings, to accommodate community facilities and social enterprises. However, as with neighbourhood planning, the support mechanisms are diminishing. In addition, the loss of regeneration funding referred to above and emphasis of new funding on creating jobs in the private sector raises questions over how to deliver such projects in the future.

It is increasingly difficult to reconcile the contraction and loss of organisations involved with supporting local communities with the rhetoric of the Big Society. Many national organisations are opposed to, or at least deeply concerned about, the planning aspects of the Localism Bill. Many have raised questions over the lack of resources to implement various parts of the Bill. Private, public, and third sector bodies share such concerns. But few will openly oppose the bill. With a new national Government, there is clearly a wish by organisations to develop good relationships with ministers and to avoid being ‘shut-out’ in terms of lobbying and influencing.

So various organisations are raising questions over aspects of the Bill, but few are questioning the principle of localism as it is now being interpreted. In mixed metaphor terms, this is a classic room, elephant and unclothed emperor situation. This means that a potentially divisive and poorly conceived bill is likely to pass through Parliament without the level of challenge and scrutiny it deserves. Many think that the bill is undeliverable at best and positively harmful at worst. Without adequate resources, the prospects of a positive outcome are not good.

Originally written for the Manchester Business School by
Dave Chetwyn, Director of DJC1 Planning Limited and HTF Executive Committee Member
22 February 2011